I’ll be honest. I don’t like writing or talking about politics. Where I am from, nobody does.
My generation — people born in the late 1990s — was brought up in a dictatorship country with no rights and no ability to voice our minds. We were sold the idea that nothing we do or say matters — because it really doesn’t.
We were told that at any point, the modern-day version of KGB (called FSB) might be listening to us. We were taught that no matter how hard we vote, it won’t change a thing.
Nobody can do anything. So why bother?
“It’s not us, it’s them, the people in power.”
We — people of Russia, are not in charge. We are imprisoned. We’re not to blame. It’s not our fault.
Most people in modern-day Russia are faced with two options: shut up and get used to it — making the most of the corrupt system, learning to navigate its treacherous waters — or leave.
I chose the latter.
Last year, my wife and I left Russia last year and we don’t intend on coming back. Because we care about the truth, we want to live a good life, and most of all: we value our ability to say what we think without fear. We are also in our early twenties. We want a life. Not to merely exist in perpetual dread.
But even though we left, we still feel responsible for what our country is doing to the rest of the world. And given that my wife’s family is Ukrainian, we feel torn apart by this needless conflict that the old lunatic in charge has summoned.
My wife and I met in Russia. She — coming to Moscow for university from Odessa, Ukraine, and I — who lived between the U.S. and Russia all my childhood and early adulthood. We both lived and worked in Moscow for several years.
We also both agree that the most terrible part of modern Russia is not that most people know the truth and are afraid to voice it like protagonists in many dystopian novels (e.g. my wife’s favorite — 1984).
The most terrifying part is that nobody actually knows what the truth is.
The moment you cross the Russian border, you enter a separate universe — the rest of the world starts feeling too far away, at times it feels as if it’s not real, and you forget what real life is supposed to be like.
When I talk to my friends (and, I am embarrassed to say, my own family) back home today, most of them say the same thing: nobody knows what to believe but it seems as if Russia is doing the right thing by keeping NATO’s forces away from home and so, the invasion of Ukraine is justified. Wow.
But I don’t blame them. It’s hard to be objective when you live in a country where everyone lies 24/7.
Imagine if every person in the world told you that the snow is green. Sooner or later, you’d start believing it, feeling guilty for ever thinking otherwise. You’d block away any doubt because fear of embarrassment and shame would overweigh the need for accuracy.
I’ve lived in the US, UK, and Europe all my life, I went to an American college, and worked in London. Which is to say, I have a pretty global mindset. Yet, every time I come to Russia, even I feel as if I am cut off from the rest of the globe.
The smiles in St. James Park are replaced with grim faces on Tverskaya St., the California sun is replaced with six months of gray and dirty winter, and the objective truth is replaced by propaganda and a feeling of never-ending fear.
The TV and news propaganda is doing its job really well.
People in Russia are brainwashed into believing what the government wants them to believe and, even if you’re self-aware and don’t watch TV — as many of my friends do — you still can’t escape this virus.
It’s very contagious and it lives everywhere: in conversations, billboards, news headlines, radio announcements. Even the most liberal media outlets in Russia are afraid of voicing the truth.
Today, most Russians are fed lies by TV and mass media to believe that what Putin is doing is justifiable (it’s not; it’s international crime). And any attempt by the West to persuade them otherwise is met with strong opposition and phrases like, “Oh, look, the US just wants to keep its power and doesn’t want Russia to be great again. What idiots!”
And because most Russians don’t know any better, they believe what they’re told.
The problem is that there is a severe lack of ideology in Russia. But if you don’t build ideas, it doesn’t mean they won’t appear on their own. The one ideology that has become prevalent over the years in Russia is: “us versus them.” It’s extremely easy to sell and it gets votes. That’s the agenda that Putin is pushing for the past decade or so.
“Ukraine is an enemy. It’s historically part of Russia. But they sold themselves to NATO.”
“The U.S. can’t stand losing global power. That’s why it intervenes.”
“Everyone in the world is the U.S.’s puppet.”
These ideas are so contagious, that when you try to reason with an average person in Russia, it often feels like talking to someone in a mental institution. You cannot reason with these people. There’s no logic to this discussion. No reasonable debate is possible.
“The TV is right and you’re wrong. Also — you’re probably an agent of the CIA.”
Over the past few days, watching the current Ukraine crisis unfold via NY Times on my iPhone and CNN in my hotel room, I noticed a weird thing: I am not surprised.
When I discussed this with my Russian friends around the globe, I realized that so are they. We all got so used to feeling disappointed and embarrassed by our government, we don’t even feel shame anymore.
Like children of abusive parents, after so many years of abuse, we forget what’s normal and what’s not. Watching your “parent” commit a crime, we simply sigh, shake our heads, and say, “Well, what did you expect?”
We, the new generation of Russians, the “global Russians”, as we call ourselves, have long ago given up on the prospect of having a country and government we’d be proud of. We left to never come back. We chose to be free but “homeless” (motherland-less) rather than give up our freedom with false hopes of something ever changing for the better.
But, again, like children who gave up on our abusive parents for our own sanity, we still worry about our country’s fate. Though we still hate it vehemently when it does something wrong — like invade another nation. In times of crisis, we feel powerless to do anything. And secretly hope that with time, something will change, and we’ll be able to be proud of our country and even, maybe, come back.
But as years go by and things don’t seem to be changing for the better (in fact, they are changing for worse), with Russia starting to resemble the worst of the U.S.S.R. without its best — I’m starting to wonder that maybe our hopes will never be fulfilled. Home is supposed to feel safe and secure. So maybe we’re destined to be homeless because what we used to call our home doesn’t feel like one anymore.
What’s happening right now is unprecedented, awful, and terrifying. I woke up this morning to watch the news on CNN with my wife’s hometown being bombarded by Russian missiles. This puts me in a strange position.
I’m not just embarrassed by what my home government is doing — I am ashamed of calling myself Russian.
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